customer data

What Fashion Retailers Know About You

From understanding what the new regulatory guidelines really mean to determining how much customer data they really need in order to produce relevant, engaging and profitable messaging (hint: it’s less than you think), companies are scrambling to understand this new landscape.

Editor’s Note:  A few short weeks ago we crossed the threshold into a new era of customer insights – and how we do business in general.  Yes, we’re talking (again) about GDPR and CCPA.  We’re in conversation with brands and the technologies that support them on an almost daily basis and, to put it mildly, the struggle is real.  From understanding what the new regulatory guidelines really mean to determining how much customer data they really need in order to produce relevant, engaging and profitable messaging (hint: it’s less than you think), companies are scrambling to understand this new landscape.  Vogue Business gives us a peek into how some fashion brands are dealing with this new paradigm.

Key takeaways:

  • Vogue Business sent subject data access requests to seven retailers and found a mixed showing of GDPR compliance, data collection and personalisation strategies.

  • While many shoppers are aware that data is being collected, what and how much retailers know, as well as how that’s put to use, is still opaque.

  • As a whole, fashion lags behind other industries in making the most of customer data.

Your favourite fashion retailers might know your favourite authors.

They might also know where you live, where else you shop, your favourite movies and details about your diet. By gathering data from social media sites, sharing data with trusted partners — such as other retailers — and buying data from ad tech companies, retailers can piece together information about their customers that goes well beyond what clothes they’ve purchased and how regularly they shop. Retailers, of course, likely know the latter too.

By George Arnett

This information helps retailers target their products accordingly, but it must be accrued and handled carefully. The General Data Protection Regulation, introduced in the European Union in May 2018, forced retailers to take stock of and potentially eliminate personal data they hold on consumers. It also gave customers the right to request a copy of their data and have personal information erased. A month after GDPR went into effect, a Gartner survey showed that nearly a third of European consumers had exercised their new privacy rights, a much higher portion than expected.

Similar privacy laws are now being introduced elsewhere. The California Consumer Privacy Act, largely modelled after GDPR, went into effect at the beginning of the year. As of October last year, nineteen other US states, which together account for 134 million Americans, are currently debating legislation.

Over the last year, Vogue Business sent subject access requests to eight retailers on behalf of UK-based staff members, colleagues and one spouse who are semi-regular customers of each. This is a legal means by which a person can access the data any company holds about them under GDPR. Six of the companies —, Asos, John Lewis and Weekday – responded with the data.

Urban Outfitters required a customer signature, but its form was not received by the person making the request. (Urban Outfitters, for its part, followed up to check and offered to try again.) The UK Information Commissioner’s Office says limited extra information can be requested if a company can’t immediately confirm the identity of the person. In an emailed comment, Urban Outfitters said that this two-factor means of authentication “provides an efficient and secure method for both verifying the customer’s identity while also assuring that their personal data is not compromised”.

One independent DTC brand was also contacted, but they shut down before the request could be completed. The company did not respond to several emailed requests for comment.

All sites that responded had a collection of basic information, including name, email, address and telephone number. and Asos noted the gender of the subject (this field was left blank on the data received back from Net-a-Porter), while Asos had a record of her age. Beyond the basics, what they sent displayed how retailer strategies differ when it comes to gathering and using personal information.

Decoding data profiles

Asos had what seemed like the most detailed profile of personal information. The retailer had collected information from the customer’s Facebook page including favourite authors, books, films, interests, culinary preferences and the pages they ‘liked’ when they last logged into Asos using a Facebook log-in. The site also allows customers to log in with Google or Twitter.

Coupled with purchase data, such information could help retailers target shoppers with products that match their cultural interests, says Tim Bond, head of insight at the Data and Marketing Association.

Asos has a collaboration with Star Wars, for instance, and could let fans of the film series know when it pushes a new product. It could also be used in less direct ways. A considerable proportion of customers identifying as vegan may also encourage the company to stock up on alternative leathers. It can also demonstrate otherwise hidden links between products, consumers and their preferences that can help drive appropriate product recommendations.

The retailer declined to comment on these scenarios, but states in its privacy policy that social media data is used to “provide product recommendations” and perform “analysis to understand what you like, how you might share your likes with your friends and how you might influence others with your style”.

Sales and data strategies are being informed with details of where you shop, what you eat, what movies you like and what you read. sent back every apparent identifiable interaction the customer had with the site since May last year. This included information such as how far through an article she had read, the wording she used when searching for products and whether this led to a purchase. In some cases, the data captured also revealed she was using an iPhone X to browse the site and an IP address revealing where she was at the time. It is clear from the data where the subject lives and where they are working.

Farfetch did not include this level of data but showed the product pages the subject had visited, while Net-a-Porter included the list of designers that the subject said she liked. Both also shared details of the customer’s IP addresses. Farfetch also reserves the right in its privacy policy to supplement its data with information from third-party sources, including social media providers and publicly available data. Net-a-Porter says it collects details of interactions with its site.

The rationale behind storing this additional browsing data is clear.

Customers do not typically provide enough data to fashion retailers to allow for accurate demographic profiling, says Rod Sides, vice chairman at Deloitte who leads its US retail and distribution firm practice. This is especially true for luxury shopping, where purchases tend to be much less frequent and more considered than in fast fashion. Retailers have often historically purchased data from ad tech companies and other third-party data sources to get a clearer picture of their customer base (Farfetch reserves the right to do this in its privacy policy).

This data can help retailers show customers relevant products and understand the types of designers that play well with certain sections of a company’s clientele. A designer may not be popular as a whole, but their presence on the site may be key to ensuring the loyalty of high-spending customers.

“The possession of customer data in aggregate can be incredibly valuable in increasing your ability to connect the product to the customer,” says Julian Burnett, vice president of global markets and distribution sector at IBM UK and Ireland.

Additionally, linking up with other retailers can paint a fuller picture. Department store John Lewis, for example, builds out its customer profiles by collecting data from its sister company Waitrose.

Loyalty cards, largely deployed by department stores and supermarkets, can also reveal a great deal about customers. In 2012, Target accidentally revealed a teenager was pregnant to her family based on the purchases that she was making, which were typical of someone in the early stages of pregnancy. In response, Target sent relevant offers to her home.

Data paralysis

Collecting data is only one part of the equation — using that data strategically is another. “There is a big focus on trying to get as much data as possible,” Tiffany Carpenter, head of UK and Ireland customer intelligence at analytics firm SAS, says of her retail clients. “Very few are actually using the data that they are collecting about their customers.”

Consumers may be surprised by the level of data collection that they have consented to, and a recent Deloitte study found that there was a significant gap between what retailers are using data for and why consumers think that it is being gathered. But fashion retailers are generally considered behind when it comes to utilising it. “If I am being honest, fashion brands don’t jump to mind when I think about how personalisation is being used,” says Anusha Couttigane, EMEA principal fashion analyst at Kantar. “Those innovative uses of data are coming from other retail sectors.”

Companies with strong personalisation strategies tend to be the ones that actively ask consumers for data. Algorithm-driven personal styling service Stitch Fix, for example, requests information on its users’ style preferences. This has led to consumers becoming much more comfortable sharing information, Brad Klingenberg, the company’s chief algorithms officer, writes via email. The highly personalised shopping experience builds a relationship between shoppers and Stitch Fix’s personal stylists, so customers might go on to share their pictures, details about vacation plans or even intimate events like pregnancy or a new job opportunity, which strengthens customer loyalty to the brand, he explains.

Other retailers may not be able to collect or use data in the same way Stitch Fix does, but they can get the data they need through transparency and clarity over what customers are going to get in exchange, points out Deloitte’s Sides, who regularly asks consumers what they want from retailers in return for their data. “The number one thing that comes back is better prices or more specific promotions.”

“The key is not to be scared of it,” says Bond. “Just speak to customers about why you want their data and what you want it for.”

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Comments, questions or feedback? Email them at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in Vogue Business. Photo by Siarhei Plashchynski on Unsplash.

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